Bird that Sings

November 29, 2007

Max Roach: first among equals

Filed under: Music&Culture,Uncategorized — admin @ 2:10 pm


Sonny Rollins lives! Clark Terry, Yusef Lateef, Horace Silver and Roy Haynes are, remarkably, still active. But there are very few musicians remaining from the generation that forged the creation of modern Jazz.

They’ve been called the “Last Masters” and of this group, Max Roach was a first among equals.

Max would, perhaps, want to be remembered that way. “A people’s man”, “a race man”, since the 1940’s, Max viewed Jazz as definitively democratic; a collectively improvised music that mirrored the way a truly democratic society— ie., not this one—would operate.

But for many, Max Roach was not so much a first among equals as a prince among men.

His accomplishments are legendary. As a teenager in the 1940’s he played drums with the iconic Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie Quintet that created Be-Bop, the genius music of the 20th Century. He went on to become one of the main forces in Fifties Jazz, and along with trumpeter Clifford Brown and saxophonist Sonny Rollins, helped create one of the two “schools” of Jazz in the Fifties, so called “hard bop.”

As the Sixties dawned, Max began to call for–and proclaim in his work–a new black consciousness in jazz and art. This was a consciousness that demanded society recognize the key contributions of black art and artists as well as the ongoing crime against humanity being perpetrated on black America at large.

Max also demanded that his fellow musicians recognize their implicit role in the freedom struggle and make it manifest. And so they did. Following the lead of Max Roach and others, jazz musicians of that era made “the music” a frontline of the black freedom and consciousness movement for the next two decades.

I met Max Roach over thirty years ago. I was part of a self-described “cultural workers collective” that ran a club in Philadelphia called the New Foxhole Cafe. I was barely more than a kid at the time and most of my fellow collectivists weren’t much older. We were thrilled when the great Max Roach agreed to play our club, but Max really like playing the Foxhole and understood what we trying to do. More to the point he understood it as part of what he was trying to do.

Max came back to play the club many times over the next several years. Though we were always in awe of him, Max never treated us like kids, but as comrades, as brothers, as men. Max Roach tried to lead by example. For many of us he still does. In many hearts Max Roach will never die.

The following is an excerpt of a poem by the late Etheridge Knight.


has fire and steel in hands

rides high,

is a Makabele warrior,

tastes death of his lips, beats babies

from worn out wombs,

grins with grace

and cries in the middle of his eyes.


thumps the big circle in bare feet

opens wide the big arms,

and like the sea

calls us all.

Bonds: in and outta this world

Filed under: Sports,Uncategorized — admin @ 12:56 pm

Bonds—In and outta this world 8/10/07

When I was a kid, during summer vacation I used to go my local branch library and read the sports biographies— all the sports biographies—Bob Turley, Don Larsen and Sal Maglie. The Jackie Robinson story, The Billy Martin story, the Roy Campanella story, Eddie Matthews and Willie Mays. I read the stories of Don Hutson and Johnny Blood, T. Truxton Hare and John Heisman. I read the Sammy Baugh story, the Bobby Layne story, the Bill Russell story, the Lenny Wilkens story, the Sid Luckman story, and on and on.

For some reason I didn’t get to The Hank Aaron story until the fall of 1965, but I already knew a lot about him. My father was a great admirer of Henry Aaron and thought him the best pure hitter since Ted Williams. At the time, this was a minority view. The general feeling among sports cognoscenti of the era was that while Aaron was a very good hitter, he was not the equal of Willie Mays and perhaps not even Mickey Mantle.

In fairness, you could see why. Willie Mays hit .317 with 52 home runs in 1965—this in an era featuring pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning and earned run averages under 2.00. Mays was already 34 years old in 1965 but by years end he had 505 Home Runs and people were beginning to talk about Mays having a chance to surpass Babe Ruth’s home record of 714. I, however, didn’t think so, nor did my father.

Incredible as it sounds, you could already see signs of the great Mays’ decline—at least my father could— even during that MVP year. It was actually a fly ball Mays couldn’t reach in a game against the Phillies—and that Mays, and perhaps only Mays, would have reached five years before— that tipped my father off.

After Mays failed to come up with the ball, my father shook his head and said to me, “you know Abums, I think Mays is in decline.” I said to my father “you’re nuts”—I used to call him nuts all the time—in 1965 Willie Mays was the best player in baseball as he had been for most of the previous fifteen years. But my father was right. Mays never hit .300 again after ’65, and after ’66, his power numbers began to drop precipitously as well.

Aaron meanwhile, by year’s end 1965 was sitting on 398 lifetime home runs, but Aaron was only thirty-one years old and I did the math. Since his Rookie year when he hit 13 home runs, Aaron had averaged exactly 35 Home Runs a year over the previous eleven years. If he could somehow maintain that pace over the next eight years, Aaron would be in reach of Babe Ruth’s then seemingly unreachable record by the time he was 39.

Being eleven years old at the time, I perhaps did not understand how difficult a task I was laying out for “The Hammer”. Nonetheless standing there in the antique, albeit institutional, grandeur of the Bushrod branch library on Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, I felt a shiver run through me. Willie Mays wasn’t going to break Babe Ruth’s record, Hank Aaron was and I had been the first to figure it out.

I ran home to tell me father, who seemed surprisingly unmoved by my epiphany; as though maybe this time, he thought I was nuts.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Forty years later, I feel as proprietary as anyone about Hank Aaron’s home run record. I feel like I called it, in a sense, like when Babe Ruth called that home run for the sick kid. And that revelation in the library, unknown to all but me, my late father—and now you—is a major event of my youth.
So having said that, let me further say that the best pure hitter I’ve personally ever seen was Barry Bonds between the years of 2000 and 2004.

And therein lies another, larger story.

I confess to not having read the Balco book, “Game of Shadows,” by San Francisco Chronicle Reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams which uses reports of leaked grand jury testimony, to the effect that Bonds not only took performance enhancing drugs but lied about it to the grand jury. I have however read the synopsized version of the book in the Chronicle. I have also read Bonds’ own description of what he claims he thought he was taking from his personal trainer, Greg Anderson. That is, a balm for muscle and joint pain—which came to be known as “the cream,” and flax seed oil.

For what it’s worth, I’ve also heard Victor Conte, the owner of Balco speak about Bonds. Conte, who has been quick to finger other steroid using athletes he was supplying, says that he personally did not supply Bonds with anything illegal and is not sure what, if anything, Bonds was taking during these years.

For the decade of the 1990’s Barry Bonds was, year in and year out, the best hitter, and arguably the best player, in baseball. He won three Most Valuable Player awards. He hit over forty home runs three times, only hit less than thirty three once, drove in over a hundred runs every year but one, hit .300 or more every year but one, and stole the lion’s share of his career 510 stolen bases. Bonds also won eight Golden Glove awards for his defensive play in left field and was generally an awesome to player to watch.

However in 1999, during or right before Spring training, Bond’s fell down the stairs of his house and hurt his knee badly. He was on the disabled list until June 9th of that year. When he came back, though he managed 34 Home Runs and drove in 83 runs, he only batted .262, his worst average since the early years of his career in Pittsburgh. Bonds’ knee became arthritic around this time and he says that this is when he started using the balm from Balco. I believe him.

For their part, Fainaru-Wada and Williams take into account Bonds’ knee injury, but say that Bonds’ new steroid aided training regimen of these years was also prompted by Bonds’ jealousy of the steroid aided, big power numbers that others were putting up in the Nineties. Bonds’ was apparently further piqued by the fact that none of these overachieving players now out producing him, were as good as him.

This also has the ring of truth.

Every era in baseball has been created accidentally as it were, by outside forces the game has had to respond to.

Previous to the modern era in baseball was the so-called “dead ball era”, as it was known to subsequent generations of fans. Before 1919, the single season home run record in Major League Baseball was 14, held by Frank “Home Run” Baker, the greatest slugger of his time. Then came the “Black Sox” scandal in which eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series.

Baseball, then truly the American pastime, was at a crossroads. In the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal along came Babe Ruth and the so-called “live ball,” though it’s hard to say which came first. Ruth, a former pitcher in his first season as a full time player, smashed Baker’s home run record, hitting 29 home runs (the next leading home run hitter in baseball hit 11) in 1919. Babe followed this up by hitting an incredible 54 home runs in 1920 and 58 home runs in 1921. It was a new day.

Then, in the aftermath of WWII—a war against fascism and, at least implicitly, against the ideology of white supremacy—it became clear to even some of the idiots who ran Major League Baseball that the continuing practice of white supremacy in the National Pastime was an abomination. The breaking of the color line, coming as it did along with the rise of Television, arguably led to Baseball’s greatest era.

In 1994, a baseball strike wiped out the post season for the first time in over ninety years. People were saying the strike was the death knell of baseball. The sport was a relic of a previous century, they said, there wasn’t enough action in the game to hold the attention of our increasingly attention deficit disordered nation.

When play resumed in 1995, the home runs began to mount, seemingly exponentially over the next three years, culminating in the record-breaking season of 1998. In the course of this season, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke Roger Maris’ previous record of 61 home runs. Sosa hit 66 home runs that season and McGwire finished with 70 home runs. At the time, most fans figured that Major League Baseball was juicing the ball again, just as they had seventy years before in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. And maybe they were.

But Barry Bonds and other baseball insiders knew it was more than that. By this time steroids were an open secret in baseball and there was no more prominent steroid user than the new Home Run King, Mark McGwire. During the mid 90’s, McGwire was open about his use of the steroid precursor, androstenedione, or “andro”—which was not illegal at the time and was widely available. McGwire, while not admitting to actual steroid use in this period, did not deny it either. However McGwire had special reasons to look for help. He had lost both the 1993 and 1994 seasons to injury, first a partially torn muscle sheath in his right foot and then his left. In 1995 McGwire got off to a great start and then severely hurt his lower back, sustaining disk damage. He was out for most of July and all of August that year.

In 1996 McGwire came back from his three years of injuries to hit 52 home runs. He proceeded to hit 58 home runs in 1997 and 70 home runs in 1998, all career highs.

McGwire was not the only player to use steroids for help in rehabilitating from injuries in this period. Many other well-known players, faced with career threatening injuries, turned to steroids as well, not so much to gain an “unfair competitive advantage,” as for help in rehabilitating themselves.

But ultimately it didn’t matter what reason a player turned to steroids for, the drugs, in the short term, delivered. Scores of players from the late 80’s through the 90’s began using them to great effect and its almost impossible to believe that Bonds, now rehabbing from his own injury, did not take note.

By 2000, Bonds had recovered from his knee injury. He hit .306 that year with 49 home runs, 106 RBI’s and 129 runs scored. It was a great year to sure, but well within the parameters of his previous statistical output.

All through this period Bonds was becoming noticeably bigger and stronger, however Bonds’ regimen of six to eight hour work outs were already legendary and Bonds’ entourage of personal trainers trailing through the Giants’ clubhouse, already notorious.

Statistically Bonds’ does not jump off the scale of his even own outsized statistical achievements until 2001 when he hit an almost unreal 73 home runs, along with 137 RBI’s and a batting average of .328 and again 129 runs scored.

By the next year Bonds apotheosis was complete. He not only hit 46 home runs in 2002, but his average was .370 and pitchers were now completely afraid to face him. Bonds walked a Major League record 198 times and his on base percentage was .582. Over the next two years Bonds hit a combined .350, with ninety home runs, and topped out at a ridiculous 232 walks—bases on balls— in 2004. His on base percentage and slugging percentage also continued to rise. Taken altogether it was a thing as unprecedented in baseball history as Babe Ruth hitting those 52 home runs in 1920.

Bonds may very well have used performance-enhancing drugs for those years, but I don’t know that, and neither do you. I do know that a lot of players were using them and none of them came close to Bonds’ achievements.

Ultimately the main point about Barry Bonds, is that like Ruth, like Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Rogers Hornsby, Bonds was a baseball genius who figured out a way, in the short term, to transcend the limits of the game itself.

And by that, I don’t necessarily mean using steroids.

Like Ted Williams, Bonds was, is, a hitting scientist. Bonds’ home run record will fall, sooner rather than later, if not to Alex Rodriguez, then to some twelve-year old playing at this moment on the sandlots of Camaguey, Cuba. But I’m not sure if Bonds’ record for bases on balls—currently at 2525 and rising— will ever be approached. Bonds only swings at pitches in the strike zone that he can hit. Like with Williams, Bonds’ “Walks” are a testimony to his hitting discipline, to playing the game the right way in order to seize the moment when it presents itself.

Bonds is also reminiscent of the baseball immortal, Ty Cobb. Pete Rose took Cobb’s record for total hits but without some kind of species mutation, no one is going to challenge Cobb’s career batting average record of .363 any time soon. The adjective politely applied to Cobb as a player and person was “prickly,” and that could also be applied to Bonds. More accurately, Cobb was also called a vicious player and a selfish jerk. Though Bonds has never been accused of being vicious he is regularly castigated around baseball for his personality problem. But one can’t help thinking that part of the problem with both Cobb and Bonds is their supreme egoism, their unwillingness to let anything get in the way of their competitive edge.

This egoism also translates into a sort of big-ticket utilitarianism. Bonds has long been a proud Republican. As he once said at a Republican fund raising event for former California Governor Pete“Prop 187” Wilson, “the Republicans are the party of the Rich man, and I’m a rich man.”

The big lie of our official culture is that we are an anti-drug society. It is often said that Ronald Reagan ran for President in 1980 on an implicit platform of reversing the 1960’s—by which one assumes they mean sex, drugs and rock n’roll.

However what happened to sex, drugs and rock n’roll since the ‘70’s is that they got pressed into the service of sales and advertising and now have to pay their own way.

It’s hard, for example, not to experience a moment of cognitive dissonance watching a discussion of performance enhancing drugs in sports on ESPN or CNN, with the weird graphics crawling up the screen against a throbbing bass and pounding drums all created expressly to mimic a drug experience.
And then there’s poor Anderson Cooper. He seems like a good enough guy, but how does he keep going around the world 360, 24/7? And what are the long-term consequences?

From 2000—2004, Barry Bonds was the greatest hitter I have ever seen—and yes, that includes Ted Williams who I saw play in 1960. It includes Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, George Brett, Rod Carew, Mike Schmidt and yeah, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

And if some people are gonna decide, well that’s because he was on steroids, I suppose Bonds has only himself to blame for that, but for me it only slightly diminishes his achievement.

As has often been said, the thing about baseball is that it’s primarily a game of failure against which you then measure your infrequent successes. The best clutch hitter is going to fail to drive in the winning run, two out of three times. The best team in baseball is probably going to lose at least sixty times over the course of a season.

It’s this built in sense of failure and loss that makes this definitively 19th century game, so poignant, powerful and timeless. It is also often said that baseball is a lot like life, in that both will kick your ass.

And so when we see a player manage to stand above the game for a season or two, to actually be better than the game itself, it’s like watching a river run uphill, like watching Icarus rising and this time disappearing in the sky.

Yesterday I was walking by the Montgomery street Bart Station in downtown San Francisco and saw an old man sitting there on a milk crate playing a battered guitar. He had a baseball cap in front of him, full of change. As I came closer I saw that the guitar only had five strings, it was missing the high E string, but he was singing a sort of uptempo Jesse Fuller type blues and it sounded pretty good anyway. I came a little closer to make out the words. They went . .

. . . Every asshole tries his hardest
We all got feet of clay
I seen Bonds in and outta this world
The rest just falls away. . .

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